The Man who was Valentine


There is a strange notion out there. It haunts cinema and frequents literature. It is the notion that sometimes a man is not just a man. If a man makes himself more than just a man—if he devotes himself to an ideal—then he becomes something else entirely: a legend. One such legend survives today in the form of an opportunity to give and receive copious amounts of chocolate. We are familiar with St. Valentine’s Day as a day for couples to show gratuitous signs of affection for each other; perhaps we are familiar with it as a day for single people to drown their sorrows in chocolate ice cream. We may even be familiar with the day as a day of meticulous planning that goes just right (I may even envy you). Whatever the day is, however, it’s a pretty far cry from the man whom it was named after.

There are many differing accounts of St. Valentine, and there were almost certainly multiple men of the name, but the most popular story about St. Valentine is told this way:

In the last decades of the third century A.D., the Roman Emperor Claudius II authorized a widespread persecution of the Christian religion, which was not yet the official religion of the Empire, and by no means highly favored, as this persecution was not the first to be imposed. The Christians, being for the most part sturdy (if not simply stubborn) folk, kept on practicing their religion, and many were arrested, tortured, and put to death.

One particular Christian priest, a man by the name of Valentine, was arrested by a high-ranking Roman official for marrying Christian couples and otherwise aiding Christians. Valentine was kept in jail for a long time, and he was tortured as the Romans tried to get him to renounce his faith. Valentine kept the faith, however, and his stoicism in the face of torture earned him the respect of his jailor—legend has it that he even healed the jailor’s daughter of her blindness. Valentine even gained the attention (and interest) of the Emperor Claudius himself. However, that was where Valentine made a tactical error: he tried to convert Claudius to Christianity and was immediately sentenced to death. The legend goes that, the night before he was to be beheaded, he wrote a small note of encouragement to the jailor’s daughter—the one he healed—signing it, “from your Valentine.” This, of course, is where we get the whole notion of being someone’s Valentine!

St. Valentine may have existed and done every single thing in this story, or he may have never existed at all. (Photograph of David Teniers III, Saint Valentine kneeling, provided through Wikimedia Commons).
St. Valentine may have existed and done every single thing in this story, or he may have never existed at all. (Photograph of David Teniers III, Saint Valentine kneeling, provided through Wikimedia Commons).

Valentine was martyred (killed for his faith) on Feb. 14, and was later declared a Saint. Like most Saints, his death-day was also declared his feast-day, which where we get our modern date for St. Valentine’s Day.

The strangest part of this admittedly strange story, however, is the fact that St. Valentine, as a Christian priest, was, according to the priestly traditions of that era, completely celibate. St. Valentine’s letter was not a love-letter at all, but rather a death note, encouraging a friend of his not to grieve too much for his martyrdom. It is truly odd to observe that, the day in which our hearts seem liberated from our chests, a man’s head was liberated from his shoulders. This is, of course, not incongruous, because a martyr is always happy to die. It can, however, be a bit sobering when we realize that the thing probably most ‘liberated’ is the legend from the man.

I have no idea whether the story I have told you is in any way accurate. St. Valentine may have existed and done every single thing in this story, or he may have never existed at all; the records of his existence are unreliable—folktales, really. There may have been many Valentines who are all summed up in a kind of foreshortening to tell this story. There may even be a Valentine who never did any of the things I have told of above, and the stories were only attributed to him after his death.

The real traditions that we have surrounding St. Valentine’s Day have been accomplished mostly due to a warping or blurring of the story I have just told you. St. Valentine’s signature is preserved on the letter, but the rest is smudged beyond repair. In truth, the greater reason it is a day for couples is that Feb. 14 is traditionally the day in which birds started coupling—it is the exact middle of the second month of the year. In a way, it was only a coincidence that this day also happened to be St. Valentine’s day. In a way, you could say, our love-letters are written over Valentine’s death-note, with only the signature retained in a scrawl at the bottom—a word whose meaning we forgot. This is the sad part of any legend: that the man behind it fades.

But the important thing, I think, is that the legend exists. Is it necessary to ever find the man who was Valentine? I don’t think it is any more necessary to find Valentine than it is necessary to find Beowulf, or King Arthur. The paradoxical thing about these characters is that the quality of their life was never affected by their actual existence. They never needed to be kept alive. Their legends exist to inspire—to prove to us that the world is full of people willing to believe in good. So hold your sweethearts tighter, and raise a toast—to your Valentine.

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